Monday, August 18, 2014

Cut Spike: An American Scotch in Nebraska

Scotch style single malt is not only made in Scotland.  High quality single malts rivaling the best of Scotland have been made for years in Japan, and more recently, quality single malts have come to us from India and Taiwan, but not the US.

Why can't American distilleries make high quality single malts in the Scotch style?  Part of the answer is in our regulations. While Scotch style single malts are aged in used barrels, American malt whiskey, like bourbon and rye, is required to be aged in new, charred oak barrels.  The problem is that barley is much less bold than sweet corn or spicy rye, and its flavors tend to be buried by the new wood. Add to that the fact that Scotland (and most other jurisdictions making single malt) require three years of aging whereas the US has no minimum, and you can start to understand why most American malt whiskey tastes nothing like Scotch, even when the producers are trying to mimic it. (Americans could age malt in used barrels and call it "whiskey distilled from malt mash" but that designation somehow seems less appealing than "single malt whiskey.")

Knowing all of this, I was a bit skeptical when K&L spirits buyer David Driscoll told me there was a distillery in Nebraska making single malt whiskey that tasted like Scotch.  David is a great guy and one of my favorite retailers, but let's face it, he is a bit excitable.  This is a guy who sources some of the best spirits on the market, but his talents are such that he could probably unload Seagram's 7 by the caseload as the latest budget retro-fad. (And if he ever goes into political advertising, watch out!)

A few days later, I received a sample of Cut Spike Single Malt, a two year old whiskey made outside of Omaha.  Cut Spike is made from barley that comes from Rahr Malting in Minnesota, one of the largest malting companies in the United States.  Like many craft distillers, Cut Spike gets their fermented wash from a brewery, in this case, their sister company, the Lucky Bucket Brewing Company. Their stills are made by Forsythes in Scotland, and they use a variety of casks ranging from lightly to heavily charred.

I've never heard anyone compare Omaha to the Scottish Highlands, but I figured I'd give it a try.  Wow!  This was by far the best American single malt I'd ever tasted, and the only one that could pass for Scotch.  In fact, I certainly would have guessed it was Scotch in a blind tasting.  It was fruity and perfumey on the nose with a touch of milk chocolate.  The palate was sweet, if a bit thin, with bubblegum which faded to malt and it had a light, fruity finish.  The flavor was reminiscent of Balvenie with its light, fruity nose and slight chocolate note. I had no idea how they tamped down on the raw wood notes.

While this was great for an American malt, it wasn't great Scotch. It was too sweet and thin on the palate, so while Cut Spike had successfully made a Scotch like whiskey, it was a decent one, not a great one.

After my initial tasting, I got an email from Driscoll.  The bottles had arrived, but they weren't quite the same.  Cut Spike had changed their filtration method.  He still liked it, but I told him I wasn't able to review a sample that was different than the product being offered, so he kindly sent me a bottle of the new stuff.

Cut Spike Single Malt, Batch 1, 2 years old, 43% abv ($60)

The nose is malty.  The palate comes on a bit raw with some alcohol notes, then it turns nicely malty with some floral/perfume notes and some sweetness. The finish is sweet and floral with malt in the background. Overall, it's nicely balanced between sweet and malty notes.

Interestingly, this new batch is a very different from the previous one, though it's of comparable quality.  It's less sweet and less thin on the palate, which is an improvement, but it also has some of those raw notes that are typical of young, American whiskeys.  Those are the notes that I was surprised were absent from the earlier sample.  In this batch, they aren't present in an amount that is off putting, but they are there. 

Overall, I think I like this batch better, though unlike the previous sample, I would be unlikely to mistake this for a single malt Scotch. Tasting blind, I might guess that it was a good Scotch single grain whiskey.  And both samples are better than any other American malt I've had (excluding the hopped malt whiskeys as that's a whole different category).

I have to hand it to Cut Spike. They are clearly on to something, though they haven't nailed it yet. Much like the two year old  Willett Rye, this was good, not great, but it made me very excited to try it at five or ten years old.


Funky Tape said...

Have you ever had Stranahan's, Steve? Just curious how you'd rate this malt to it if you have.

And agreed on DD's (over)enthusiasm on a few things. This feels like it's more on the pumped side than the 'heads up whiskey snobs' side of his writings. That said, I do trust his opinion and look forward to what he sees next.

AaronWF said...

Another one to try is Westland, out of Seattle. Very, very impressive what they have managed to do. Even more impressive if they can actually get the $80/bottle sticker price I see around here...

sku said...

Funky Tape, I have had Stranahan's but it was years ago, when it was brand new on the market, so I can't really speak to what it tastes like today.

David was definitely really excited about this whiskey and for good reason I would say. It really is very different than other American malts I've had.

AaronWF, I've heard good things about Westland but haven't tried it yet.

Funky Tape said...

I'm obviously a huge fan of young malt and hold Stranahan's in high regard. Guess ill have to send you a sample of the post-Proximo stuff.

I've been working on my Westland bottle slowly. It's very nice, but its not as 'lush' or as impressive on the tongue as Stranahan's IME. I'd describe Stran as Butterfinger candy bar or Golden Graham's cereal; Westland as lightly toasted banana bread with light fruits like pineapple. Definitely thinner.

There's a lot more room for this category of whiskey to expand along with the craft beer boom. Really hope the completion drives these guys to strive for more quality. Can't wait to try Cut Spike.

t ball said...

Have you tried the Balcones single malt? I haven't had it yet, just heard of it recently, but it's garnering some good reviews and awards. I tried to buy some Balcones True Blue -- another that was getting high praise -- but I guess I was too late, everyone was out of it.

sku said...

I really like the Balcones Brimstone but didn't love their single malt, though it has received a lot of praise. I definitely preferred the Cut Spike.

Josh Feldman said...

I've certainly sung the praises of Balcones Texas Single Malt loudly - but readily acknowledge it's a very American Craft flavor profile with heavy charred new oak flavors, and youth going on. I've had Westland, that was much mellower, less charred, and complexly sweet with a bunch of caramel, malt, and molasses flavors coming out of their malting and production methods. It's very different - softer and sweeter, but still recognizably a young craft American malt whisky. I liked it and put in the same league. This Cut Spike sounds like it's in the same general area too. Worth looking out for. St. George also makes a Scotch-style single malt American whisky. It's good to see American distillers taking on the issue in a variety of ways.

AK said...

My favorite thing about this review is that it (presumably) led to today's K&L Spirits Journal post in which David Driscoll is unloading Seagram's 7 by the caseload as the latest budget retro-fad. But that cool bottle kind of makes me want to pick up some Seagram's 7...

sku said...

He's a crazy guy. I feel like he took my Seagram's 7 comment as a dare: Sku - 0 Driscoll - 1

Snidely Whiplash said...

One other "whatabout..." What about McCarthy's Single Malt out of Oregon? It's probably my favorite American single-malt. I've had Stranahan's, Balcones, and Cut Spike (hell, I live a couple miles from Cut Spike), and have found them all to be varying degrees of not-so-great.

Something about aging a single-malt spirit in basically a bourbon barrel just doesn't produce a flavor I like. I mostly get an overpowering chocolate flavor.

But McCarthy's...that stuff is awesome. Peaty and malty and...mmhmm.